Originally published in European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, 10:1 (Winter 1975/6), pp. 49-50.
Theology in the Responsa. Louis Jacobs. The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London and Boston, 1975. £6.
In 1865, Zechariah Fraenkel of Breslau wrote an essay which called for a systematic, scientific study of the Responsa Literature. What Fraenkel had in mind was quite different from the scholarly use of this literature made in the past. The Responsa Literature, comprising about two thousand volumes, has indeed been systematically studied in the past, but only for one specific purpose, namely, as a guide in halachic decisions in ritual, civil law, etc. On the basis of these studies, index commentaries were written and appended to the Shulchan Aruch. These are expanded today in the large index volumes of “Ozar Ha-Poskim” which, at the present rate of progress, will take almost a century to finish. But all of this labour was and still is for the single purpose of guidance in ritual decision.
This practical purpose, necessary as it is, overlooks the vast wealth of material in the literature which has very little to do directly with halachic decision. The response record practical questions asked at a specific time in a specific environment. Thus the questions and answers reflect, if only incidentally, the whole changing life of the Jewish people all over the world. For example, the Responsa Literature contain vast material for an economic history of the Jewish people for two thousand years, what commodities they dealt with, their business relationship with the Gentile environment, the trade routes that they followed on foot, etc. This field has hardly been touched. There is also a wealth of material in the literature for an intimate social history of the Jewish people, what changes there were in family relationships, in communal organization, etc. All such vital questions have never been fully dealt with because the task would require a total view, a conspectus of the entire literature. There are, of course, valuable works on the social life of a specific Jewish community or country, as revealed in the writings of one particular respondent. But a general history r general sociology based on the entire literature, which was perhaps what Fraenkel had in mind, has never been attempted or at least never been published.
The chief obstacle to the achievement of such general tasks is that the Responsa Literature is still unindexed. There is no listing which would record, for example, all the disputes as to maritime trade or travelling merchants, etc. Some day the literature will be fully indexed with all its social and historical material made readily available to scholars. But that time is still far off.
So there have been very few students who have dealt with this vast literature as a totality. The author of this review has written a general sketch of the literature in two volumes, The Responsa Literature and A Treasury of Responsa, but much more needs to be done in this general field.
The special virtue of Louis Jacobs’ Theology in the Responsa is that it takes into account the total Responsa Literature from the time of the Gaonim down to our day. It is a thorough work dealing with virtually every important respondent and selecting from his works those themes which may be deemed as theological rather than halachic. It is a rich fare which Louis Jacobs presents for the delectation of the reader. Naturally, because he has selected perhaps three hundred items, another student of the responsa might have wanted other examples cited in addition to those already presented. For example, among the many interesting selections from Aryeh Laib Breslau (pp. 201-5) this reviewer, being now an American citizen, would have liked the author to include Breslau’s responsum No. 41, which deals with the question of the disposal of charitable gifts if, by the time the gift was available, the recipient no longer needed it. This responsum deals with a gift from “the philanthropist of Philadelphia” (namely, Chayim Solomon) the Jewish financier of the American Revolution. This would make especially interesting reading for American Jews at the time of our Bicentennial. Or, among the response of Moses Sofer, the author might have included Orah Hayyim No. 28, which deals with the frequently discussed theme, the moving of the Bemah from the center of the synagogue. It was in this responsum that Moses Sofer coined the phrase “whatever is new is forbidden by the Torah,” the phrase often referred to in this book.
But these suggestions are merely matters of preference. The book as it stands presents a fascinating collection of theological opinions from the entire Responsa Literature. An additional blessing is that the book is well written and is a pleasure to read. Louis Jacobs sums up the book by indicating the difference between the precision required in ritual matters and the area of comparative liberty in the realm of theological dogma and finishes his book with this thought: “Freedom of conscience becomes possible within the system.”
May this work be a spur to similar works, each dealing with the total literature and each taking a theme revealing the life of the Jewish people through the ages and in many lands.
SOLOMON B. FREEHOF